The Most Popular Candies: Then and Now

The Most Popular Candies: Then and Now


By Jeffrey Totey

While it’s true that chocolate never really goes out of style, the popularity of different types of candy has shifted over the years. What was super popular one year can become hard to find the next. For some sweets, it took several years before their popularity surged, whereas others just needed a good movie tie-in to do the job.

Here’s a short history of some of the most popular candies in America since 1900. 

1900s: Chocolate and Licorice

In the late 1880s, some of the first candies to be mass-produced are what began production in the United States. Many fans of the milk chocolate Hershey bar might be surprised to learn that Milton Hershey’s first successful confections were caramels he created for his Lancaster Caramel Company in 1886. However, after he witnessed a German chocolate manufacturing machine at the World’s Expo in 1893, everything changed. After buying his own machine, Hershey sold his caramel company and turned to producing chocolate full-time. The very first Hershey bar was made in November 1900.

Leo Hirshfield created the first chewy, chocolate-flavored candy known as Tootsie Roll in 1907. Named after his daughter Clara, nicknamed “Tootsie,” the new candy became an instant hit. 

Meanwhile, Henrique Cataldi and Joseph Maison created a licorice-flavored gumdrop candy later named Black Crows in 1911. Today, Crows have the same shape and texture as DOTS and, ironically, are now being made by Tootsie Roll Industries.

1920s: Baby Ruth Hits a Home Run

Introduced to the market in 1921, Curtiss Candy Company’s Baby Ruth bar became an instant hit. Even after all these years, it’s still unclear if the caramel, nougat, and chocolate bar was really named after baseball legend Babe Ruth or President Cleveland’s daughter Ruth. Although the bar is still popular today, the bar was extremely popular during its first decade of sales.

In 1923, the Mar-O-Bar Company (later to become Mars, Incorporated) introduced the Milky Way bar, which was inspired by a popular milkshake flavor and became known as “chocolate malted milk in a candy bar.” 

Other popular candies offered in the 1920s include the candy bar Oh Henry!, Bit-O-Honey, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the latter of which found its stride a few years later. 

1930s: All for One and One for All

In 1930, Mars created the first Snickers bar, named after the family’s pet horse. Two years later, the company brought the 3 Musketeers bar to store shelves. Initially, Mars shipped this candy as three bars, each with three different nougat flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry. The candy was very successful, but wartime rations forced Mars to reduce production to just one flavor, which is the one we know and love today. At about the same time, Americans were also enjoying Tootsie Pops, a fruit-flavored lollipop with a now-familiar chocolate-flavored chewy center.

Although created in 1925, the Papa Sucker (known at the time as a “portable caramel lollipop”) saw a surge in popularity when the James O. Welch Company began to market the pop as Sugar Daddy in 1932, promising “a wealth of sweetness.” In 1935, the company started to offer jelly bean–sized versions of the snack called Sugar Babies, named after a popular song at the time, “Let Me Be Your Sugar Baby” by Artie Malvin. 

1940s: Wartime Pick-Me-Ups

It wasn’t until 1941 that Mars created the iconic M&M candies. The candy became so popular that the company began to stamp the outside of each candy-covered shell with the iconic “M” to distinguish it from rival candy companies. A short time later, both M&Ms and Tootsie Rolls were sent to soldiers fighting in World War II to help provide “quick energy.”

In 1945, the gumdrop brand known as DOTS became a movie theater staple. Another popular theater candy known as Junior Mints were introduced in 1949. The latter was named after the popular Broadway show called “Junior Miss.”

Other popular candy brands of the era include Bazooka bubble gum and the Almond Joy candy bar. 

1950s: Spicy Sweets

Adventure seekers flocked to stores to buy cinnamon-flavored candies like Atomic Fireballs and Hot Tamales when they arrived in 1954. Black licorice began to become popular once again when Good & Plenty (who had been making the pellet-shaped goodies since 1893) began to market the candy with the help of mascot Choo Choo Charlie, who liked to say that the candy “really rings a bell!”

Another candy that had been around since 1920, the Charleston Chew, became one of the most popular candy bars in 1957—causing the candymaker Nathan Sloane to doubled production of the bar. Other popular candies of the decade include Necco Wafers, Double Bubble bubble gum, and candy corn. 

1960s: Fruity Flavors and Colors

Is it any surprise that the candy choices of the young during the 1960s belonged to the likes of sweet and tangy candy, which were bright in color? Featuring a mix of sweetness and tartness, SweeTARTS were much larger than they are today, coming in two-packs with flavors like cherry, lime, lemon, orange, and grape. Necco had begun selling Banana Split and banana-flavored Slap Stix while other candies like Pixy Stix, Starburst, and Mike & Ike also rose in popularity.

The sucker brand Dum Dums (a catchy name that little kids would remember and say) came on the scene during this decade. Other fruit-flavored candies that proved to be popular included Pixy Stix (in production since 1952), candy dots, candy necklaces, Mike & Ike, and Starburst candies. 

1970s: The Year of Special Effects

Right after the colorful ’60s, candy manufacturers began to roll out special treats with their own superpowers. Saltwater taffy had a sort of comeback with the introduction of Laffy Taffy, which included jokes on every wrapper.

Pop Rocks were developed in 1956 as a happy accident when a scientist failed to make an instant soda beverage using trapped carbon dioxide in soda tablets. However, it took another 20 years for General Foods to market it as a new candy. Other special-feature candies at the time included the fizzy Zots, Charms Blow Pops (lollipops with a bubble gum center), and Fun Dip.

1980s: Sweet and Sour Once Again

Originally known as Mars Men, Sour Patch Kids began popping up, along with similar fares such as Willy Wonka’s Runts and Nerds and the flavorful Ring Pops. Though invented back in the 1920s, the Haribo Gold-Bears became very popular during the 1980s, as did Reese’s Pieces, which were featured in the Universal movie, E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (after M&M’s turned down the offer).

Jelly Belly, the brand of gourmet jelly beans, began its journey in 1976 with unheard-of flavors like cream soda and green apple, but the company saw its sales spike when they were practically endorsed by President Ronald Reagan. The president had a bunch of the sweet treats shipped for his inauguration celebrations in 1981 and was known to always keep a jar of the sweet treats in the Oval Office.

Arriving in the United States a year earlier, Skittles were first developed by a British company encouraging fans to “taste the rainbow.” 

1990s: Novelties are Novel

It was the 1990s that ushered in a range of novelty-type candies—from AirHeads to Baby Bottle Pops. Warheads, a sweet candy that turned super sour within seconds, was all the rage in 1993. Big League Chew, a foil pouch filled with shredded bubble gum, became extra popular when exaggerated caricatures of favorite baseball players began appearing on the pouches. Hershey also made headlines for creating the Cookies ‘n’ Creme bar (white chocolate bars with chocolate cookie pieces) in 1994. 


2000: What’s Popular Today

In the last 20 years, candy companies have tried to reinvent themselves by creating twists of the iconic heritage by offering new limited-edition flavors and combinations like 3 Musketeers Mint, Hershey’s Gold Bar, and raspberry M&Ms. But it’s been quite a while since a whole new candy bar hit the shelves. Most of today’s best-selling treats are still the oldest and truest treats.

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